Country diary: a little map of bird movements | Environment

Cold comes, and life hunkers. A hedgehog asleep in a nest of leaves behind the shed. Inside it, there are big spiders and signs of shredding, mice probably. So much life that stays unnoticed most of the year, then moves indoors undetected. But the birds are always noticed. Though in winter, less.

Morning, and the inside is filled with a quiet, odd brightness. Outside is a four-inch mantle of snow. Softening, just. No signs of life. Then I see something inscribed in the white. What Richard Clapham called “the hieroglyphics left by the feet of nature’s wild things” (Bird Tracks in the Snow, 1920).

Up close these can be deciphered into a story. Delicate hops in loose pairs suggest a sparrow. Here they come in a direct line to the hole made by a drain – looking for water? There they go, speaking a lively little bounce with their meander round the table out to the edge of the patio. Then they stop abruptly: takeoff.

More sets to the right, the same bird perhaps, perhaps not. Flowing in from the grass, they circle, cross each other, make for the drain again. Here alongside one track is a hole, brown-stained for three steps next to the left foot: a drip, from the left wing, or the beak.

Novel to see a little map of birds’ movements like this. You sense their ways, how they move on their feet, more than from simply watching them come and go. When I see birds here – finches, sparrows, a territorial robin – I watch them, not what they are up to. Usually they’re on the feeders. Here is a different view, a record of their ways, forensically spelled in the ground. I touch the snow, feeling the ridged edges of the tracks, and wonder how long this bird has been gone.

Once a friend showed me the impact imprint of a barn owl, frozen in collision on his window. Birds are everywhere, but oddly remote. You are closer to them when you’re touching what they have touched, these fleeting impressions of their presence. The only things missing are the birds themselves.